Posts from the ‘landscape lighting’ category

It’s grilling season – time for an outdoor kitchen!

When considering a garden project one common question we ask new clients is: what about an outdoor kitchen?  This time of year is the reason why Californians cook outside – we take advantage of the warm weather and longer days.  Plus it doesn’t feel like such a chore grilling outside – clean-up is minimal and a glass of wine in the garden is always appreciated and enjoyed after a long day inside the office.

There are a lot of possibilities when considering a built in BBQ and outdoor kitchen, personal preference is definitely the controlling factor.  How much grilling will you be doing? What about additional bar seating and countertop space?  Do you need a sink for clean up?  Do you want a refrigerator for prepped food or drinks for the party?   What about keeping food warm? What about a side burner for your beans? Are you answering yes to all of the above? It’s all possible in your outdoor kitchen.  I’ve even recently heard about a blender that can be sunk and built into a countertop for margaritas!

We’ve built many custom built in BBQs for our clients.  Every one is different from accessories to counter tops to wall materials.  Right now we are starting construction on an outdoor kitchen that is going to include building in a big green egg!  Here are some custom built in BBQS we’ve constructed for our clients:

This stucco BBQ has a custom Brazilian slate slab countertop.  The client included an outlet for additional appliances.

This stucco BBQ has a custom Brazilian slate slab countertop. The client included an outlet for additional appliances.

This fully loaded BBQ includes a light for the late night BBQ session.

This fully loaded BBQ includes a light for the late night BBQ session.

This outdoor kitchen includes an arbor for added shade during the day and down lights for the evening.

This outdoor kitchen includes an arbor for added shade during the day and down lights for the evening.

This fully loaded outdoor kitchen includes a circular bar with additional storage underneath.

This fully loaded outdoor kitchen includes a circular bar with additional storage underneath.

This simple BBQ matches the landscape with brick walls and a granite countertop to compliment the bluestone patio.

This simple BBQ matches the landscape with brick walls and a granite countertop to compliment the bluestone patio.

Now that's some great bar seating - gotta keep company with the cook!

Now that’s some great bar seating – gotta keep company with the cook!

No outdoor kitchen is complete without a place to sit!  This homeowner went bold with blue tile countertops.

No outdoor kitchen is complete without a place to sit! This homeowner went bold with blue tile countertops.

Many people order new BBQs when planning their outdoor kitchen, however if you love your current grill there are many options to build the countertops around your existing grill and simply slide it in to a permanent structure.  Or maybe instead of a building a custom unit, you just want your design to include a specific spot for your grill like in these projects:

This grill found its permanent home in this structure - even had a large warming drawer on the side - no one likes cold food here!

This grill found its permanent home in this structure – even had a large warming drawer on the side – no one likes cold food here!

This garden has the perfect cut out for their BBQ - now it has a permanent place, but is still a moveable fixture!

This garden has the perfect cut out for their BBQ – now it has a permanent place, but is still a moveable fixture!

This homeowner already had this great prefab unit in their garden, with a coat of paint on the stucco and a spot in the garden (including a permanent gas line) it looks like it was built in!

This homeowner already had this great prefab unit in their garden, with a coat of paint on the stucco and a spot in the garden (including a permanent gas line) it looks like it was built in!

As I’ve mentioned there are many options when considering adding an outdoor kitchen and Built in BBQ to your garden.  It’s important to decide what you want in your kitchen if you’re ready to make it a permanent fixture in your garden.  Whether you’re ready for your own custom Built in BBQ or you’re just ready to grill, be sure to check out our previous blog – 5 tips for cleaning your gas grill – it will for sure come in handy this season – Enjoy your time outside and Happy grilling!

Finally, A Welcoming Entry Garden to Match Its House


The first time I saw this beautiful California Mission style inspired home, there was definitely a disconnect between the entry and the architecture. My clients and I worked to make the garden entry just as detailed and as welcoming as the house. The front was a hodgepodge of materials built up over time. Pink slate was flaking off and encrusted with dirt, while there were at least three different level changes from the front door to the driveway and entry steps, creating tripping hazards and chopping up the space.

While we couldn’t alter the size of the entry steps that much due to the constraints of the existing cedar tree and driveway location, changing the material of the entry helped dramatically to create a cohesive and welcoming entry. The sandstone we chose was lighter than the former pink slate, with warm shades of yellow and brown running through. The paving stone, as well as warm Kennesaw ledgestone walls replaced the dark moss rock that was there before and immediately brightened up the ground plane beneath the dense shade of the cedar trees. We were able to increase the treads of the stairs, and reduce the riser heights for a more comfortable journey down to the front door, rather than having to focus on the precarious steep stairs that funneled visitors to the front door. A short three foot high retaining wall was built just in front of the arched entry window, creating a resting place for visitors and a safe transition spot to travel down the new side stairs.




2Estates10Replacing the cracked concrete driveway that was flanked by a structurally questionable deck helped tremendously to finish off the front of the house. The colored concrete driveway is a nice tan that complements the warm brown in the stone and rests peacefully in the background. This allows the architecture of the house and the stone to shine, while the driveway remains subdued.


Short ledgestone columns with an ornamental pot above calls attention to the entry stairs and a third accentuates the middle of the grand arched window. Wrought iron handrails and gate pick up details from the original ironwork inside the house and complement the black iron details in the exterior lighting fixtures.

Fragrant blooming white plants help to brighten the shade beneath the cedars. A sarcococcoa hedge creates an informal barrier along the road, while silver astelia and limelight hydrangea complement existing pink camelias. Variegated foliage such as dianella and winter blooming daphne also help to lighten the shade all year long. Burgundy cordylines planted above the columns create accents of bold color in key areas that contrast with the light stone.

Before, the entry was disjointed and distracting.  While the layout of this front garden entry did not change drastically, the change of materials from dark to light and the details in the finish work really make the architecture of the house pop.


Finding Zen in Your Garden

When I first met Tracy about her landscape project, she expressed her frustration, even desperation over the state of her garden. In a relatively small space there was a cacophony of different levels and materials. The space made you feel uneasy. It didn’t feel safe or restful. She and her family didn’t spend time in their outdoor space. She said her end goal for the project was to have a feeling of a Zen garden.



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This was one of those moments as a designer when I knew I needed to keep asking questions. My thoughts about a Zen garden didn’t really align with Tracy or her family or her lifestyle. She didn’t want to spend hours raking gravel and striving for nirvana. In my work, I find the concept of Zen, like Feng Shui is frequently used to describe the ideal or feeling my clients want to achieve in their finished garden. This always begs the question: “What does a Zen garden mean to you?” So, after further conversation, we edited the Zen garden concept into eliminating the visual noise that was her outdoor space, and creating peaceful, useable garden rooms that she could enjoy with family and friends. Further, the use of different materials should be as minimal as possible.

Important elements for Tracy to get her version of her Zen garden were: a water feature, a place to eat, and a place to gather around a firepit. We also had to work around the fig tree her daughter named Bob.

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The main challenge was tackling all of the grading and material issues. Garden access was through a bedroom door that lead to a rickety deck. From the deck you had to step up to a sloped aggregate patio with all of its wood expansion joints popping out or rotten. You also had to step down to a narrow path along the house that lead to a side entry. The goal was to eliminate most of the levels and use a high point in a corner of the garden to create an elevated seating area.

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Through the design process we created four different spaces. There is a dining area, a built-in seatwall around a firepit, a wall fountain water feature on which you can adjust the flow of water and sound, and a space to sit back and enjoy all of the other spaces. We considered and quickly ruled out lawn in the garden. While there is a lot of hardscape in the final design, the size of the space didn’t lend itself to dividing it into smaller parts. And again, our goal was to eliminate the visual noise of too many materials. The firepit and surrounding bench are at the high point of the garden, the height of which is ideally seat height at the main patio level. I used this to our advantage by defining that space as the dining area so the wall became a seatwall. The whole garden is outdoor living at its best.

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The final design includes a bluestone patio and loon lake ledgestone walls and water feature. We plumbed and existing modular grill to natural gas and painted the stucco to match the house. Planting is masses of subtropical plants that provide color the feeling of peaceful Zen Tracy was looking for. Bob stands tall behind the water feature and spreads his limbs over the bench at the firepit. He never looked happier! What’s better is the space has been transformed into Tracy’s Zen ideal of a safe, peaceful space for family and friends.

Fireplace Transforms Shady Garden


I just returned from visiting a garden we installed over a year ago. It is amazing to me how the work we did has turned into the main hub of the garden. My lovely client said, “I don’t know why we didn’t do this sooner”. Every time we meet, we always convene on the new patio, admiring the fragrant plants filling in and the focal point, the fireplace. My clients use the garden almost every night. I mean, they really, really use it. The gas fireplace allows them to keep warm under the shady Cedar tree every night while they light up their charcoal for the Weber barbeque. Many delicious dinners and weekend lunches are prepared out here. The lowered height of the fireplace wall allows them the perfect height and width to use as a counter for placing their platters of food as they barbeque. They were adamant they didn’t want a monster built-in barbeque with sink and fridge. They had limited space and warmth was their top priority. They were exactly right. A built-in barbecue would have cluttered the space, blocking off either side which would eliminate the open feel they were looking for. Now, the star of the garden, the fireplace, can be freestanding without any competition.


The established Cedar tree posed the greatest challenge for this garden renovation. The placement of the new fireplace, on the precipice of a slope and amongst the established tree roots required careful placement of concrete piers to avoid root damage. Consultation with an arborist and engineer on site was required throughout the construction process. The bluestone patio was set in sand with native soil mixed into the base to allow for the least amount of shock to the roots. Fragrant, dog-resistant plants were also challenging to grow beneath the canopy of the Cedar tree and amongst the root system.


The existing wood-burning brick fireplace was dangerous and unusable in its location under the cedar canopy. The new gas fireplace provides a safe and sheltered heat source for our clients as well as a focal point for the renovated garden. Removal of the existing 8’ high fence revealed ocean views our clients enjoy almost every night as they barbeque and relax by the fire.





The location of the existing fireplace and large shrubs blocked off the patio space from the rest of the garden. Relocating the fireplace and planting lower growing plants and stepping stone path opened up the feeling and spaciousness of the entire rear garden.



Hillside Entry Garden

I recently had the pleasure of designing and overseeing the installation of an entry garden for a house in the Kensington hills.  The house is a 1949 ranch house with a brick entry patio and situated just below street level.  The house was well taken care of and in great shape but the landscape was in despair.  The garden was showing signs of being long neglected and the existing hardscape was in need of an update to reflect the owner’s personal aesthetics.

Although the staircase and walkway were functional, both lacked character and interest.  The entry staircase was an industrial-looking concrete staircase/landing running straight to the brick entry walkway.  Adding to the visual distress was the inappropriate metal handrail running along both sides of the staircase and landing.  Both lacked character and did not enhance this charming ranch house.  A brick walkway was poorly installed and not wide enough for two people to walk side by side.  A general rule of mine is that all front-entry walkways should be generous in size and allow two people to hold a conversation while walking to the door.  The entry walkway is not the place to play “follow the leader”.

The clients had consulted with friends and other designers before contacting Lazar Landscape.  They compiled a list of issues they wanted the new landscape to address.  Their main concerns were:

  • Getting up and down from the front door to the street level in a safe yet aesthetically pleasing manner.
  • Create a beautiful and interesting visual focal point from the front door.
  • Install a diverse, environmentally friendly, yet low maintenance entry garden.

As is typical in so many gardens we design and install, the entire project was to be completed within a tight budget.

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In order to keep the project within budget, I decided to keep the top portion of the concrete staircase and landing as well as the Pressure Treated Douglas Fir (PTDF) wall and Moss-rock retaining wall.  The lower portion of the concrete staircase and the brick walkway were scheduled for demolition.  All plants (including weeds) on the hillside and the gopher damaged sod-lawn were also on the list for removal.

The ranch house had recently had a major remodel to the interior and a fresh coat of paint to the exterior.  The new exterior color scheme was a modern combination of light gray for the main body of the house, medium gray for the base of the house and cream for the window trim.  The best stone for the hardscape, complimenting this new paint color (and falling within the budget) was full-range Connecticut Bluestone set in a random pattern.  Connecticut Bluestone was used as a veneer on the existing concrete step treads and landing.  The same stone was also used on the new step treads, the new-mortared walkway and stepping stones running through the garden.  To cover the risers (face of steps), we chose colored stucco.  The color selected was LaHabra’s ‘Silver Grey’.

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To create a beautiful and interesting visual focal point from the front door, we installed a large water feature directly across the front door.  A 4-foot curved wall was constructed behind this water feature.  This 4-foot wall is 18 inches high on the backside and creates the perfect place to sit when you are at the staircase landing.  The new staircase begins on one side of the new wall and wraps around it before connecting to the original concrete landing.  The original brick walkway was replaced with a 5-foot wide Connecticut Bluestone curved walkway.

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The client and I selected a large ceramic urn to become an “over-flowing” water feature.  The large ceramic urn was set within a large 6-foot diameter circle of 3/8” Tuscan Gravel.  The fountain pump and plastic water reservoir sit below the ceramic urn and gravel bed.  Giant Yellow Kangaroo Paws, Blue Chalk Sticks and Orange Carex were planted within the gravel and gracefully surround the fountain.  The combination of this large ceramic urn and colorful accent plants create a strong focal point in the entry garden.

The plant material was carefully chosen to be bird friendly, colorful, water-wise and low maintenance.  The previously existing, water-thirsty, sod-lawn was replaced with drought tolerant perennials, billowing grasses and a no-mow sod-lawn.  This plant palette requires only seasonal maintenance to keep looking its best.  All perennials and grasses were set up on a water saving drip irrigation system.

Other amenities include a new, clean-lined metal handrail and FX-Luminaire low-voltage lighting.  The lighting includes pathlights along the staircase for safety, uplights for accenting garden trees and downlights for a “moonlit” effect on the fountain.  Gopher baskets for all plants and gopher netting under the no-mow sod-lawn, gravel beds and ground cover were also installed.

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Visiting this garden is always a pleasure for me.  The garden seems to always be in motion.  Grass plumes wave in the breeze, water in the fountain bubbles up and flows down the side of the large urn, humming birds and dragonflies dart about, giving a once static space the feeling of a truly living garden.

Outdoor Lighting Adds Value to Your Home

A well lit gardenIt’s that time of year! The days are getting a longer, and it has me itching to spend more time in the garden. There is no better way to extend your time outside than with outdoor lighting (this includes my real nighttime favorite – fire!). Backlit Firepit

There are many different approaches to outdoor lighting ranging from quick DIY projects to low voltage outdoor lighting fixtures or line voltage installations.

Path Lit StairWhen we start thinking about outdoor lighting design – it’s always safety first. How can we design the low voltage garden lighting to efficiently and effectively illuminate areas of transition that will make your garden safely accessible? This is typically best accomplished with path lights, down lights (if you have trees or other high points from which to mount them), stair lights or wall lights where necessary.

For security, are there dark areas in your garden or near your home that might benefit from outdoor lighting? In these instances, motion detection lights might be appropriate. Also, is your driveway and house number well lit? This will help visitors (or first responders) find and navigate your home on dark nights.  Here at Lazar Landscape, we typically work low voltage lighting into new garden designs and installations – but it’s always possible to add lighting to existing outdoor spaces.

Stair and Fountain LightingOnce you have safe passage through your garden space it’s time to start thinking about creating ambiance and atmosphere. This is frequently done by uplighting key garden features – like specimen trees, boulders, your home’s architecture, or other sculptural elements. Some trees benefit by direct uplighting, whereas other plants are more suited to a wash or silhouette lighting. Low voltage lighting is ideal in all of these situations because it’s relatively easy install if you have a dedicated outlet for the controller. Low voltage lighting wires don’t have to be buried or put in conduit, so it makes getting the right fixture in the right place fairly simple. If you’re an adventurous DIY home hobbyist you might consider tackling a low voltage lighting project by yourself – most people opt to go with a professional installation.

modern light fixturesHere at Lazar Landscape, we primarily use FX/Luminaire low-voltage outdoor lighting fixtures because we value the quality of the products. There are certainly other quality outdoor lighting products from which to choose. Low voltage lighting technology is changing by leaps and bounds, with many people opting for LED lights over the once omnipresent incandescent or halogen low voltage lights. The pros of LED are that they’re energy saving and the bulbs should last much longer – which means less maintenance less frequently. You can also get brighter lighting – if you need to down light or up light at greater distances. Also, the market is directing itself toward LED, so this is where we’ll see the most innovation in the future. The cons are that the light emitted from LED lights are colder and starker than halogen, and they cost more. LED lights are continually improving – filters can and should be installed to soften the light.

Solar lighting is another option for homeowners who enjoy DIY projects. I haven’t seen every solar light, but my experience with them is that they light themselves – meaning you see them in the dark, but they don’t really do much to illuminate the garden or make it safer. As with most things, the technology is coming. I’m really impressed with eco-friendly new USB touchlights by Voltaic, These cute little LED lights run through any USB port, including Voltaic’s portable solar panels. You can light up the night on the move! I’m definitely going to get one of these!

Al fresco diningOther technological improvements include wireless zone remote. A typical transformer installation includes a timer similar to what you might use to control a light in your house. But as technology is improving there are products that allow you to have remote control or wireless wall keypads to control your outdoor lighting. It’s far less invasive than having the transformer switched in your house. You can even utilize a key fob – so you can turn your lights on as you drive up to your house. There are higher tech options that tie into universal remote controls for you house that allow you to control your garden lighting from your computer.The technology is only getting more exciting!

If you’re on a lower budget and like taking on your own DIY projects, café lights are an easy solution to garden lighting. Like everything, you can select from a wide range of quality from restaurant grade right down to your typical Christmas string lights or even rope-style LED lights. The Voltaic USB touchlights are also a cost-effective option if you don’t require a lot of lights – or if you want to keep your lights portable. These LED lights are totally waterproof. Candles, be they traditional fire and wax or battery operated or even solar, can be used to create ambiance in a nighttime garden.

Restaurant-quality cafe lights on custom fraom

Restaurant-quality cafe lights on custom fraom

Whether working with a landscape design/build company or taking on your own DIY projects, outdoor lighting adds so much to your home – security, safety, curb appeal, beauty, and an extension of your outdoor living ability – not to mention increasing the value of your home if you’re thinking about resale. When working on outdoor lighting design the main areas to consider are: safety and security; curb appeal and added home value; and the functionality of extending the time you can spend in your garden. Weigh the pros and cons of different kinds of light from halogen, incandescent and LED lights. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big or small project, light up the night and spend more time outside!

Charming Winter Gardens

Welcome Winter!

Although the weather outside is frightful, the garden can still be delightful! Although this cold snap here in the San Francisco Bay Area is causing us to complain and stay inside, there is still a lot to appreciate in your garden this time of year.

Including berries! Berries brighten up any garden in winter. Cotoneaster dammmeri, a groundcover, native Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), a large growing shrub, and Hawthorn (Crataegus ‘Washington Hawthorn’), a small scale tree, are always reliable berry producers. Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a classic holiday shrub with its dark green, glossy foliage and bright red flowers. Mahonia varieties produce smoky blue berries, but like Holly, need a male counterpart nearby as a pollinator in order to get results.

The bark of the Coral Bark Maple really stand out in a winter garden, this one is newly planted in a great location!

The bark of the Coral Bark Maple really stand out in a winter garden, this one is newly planted in a great location!

Don’t forget to appreciate beautiful bark. Even after these plants drop their leaves, there is a show to behold. Ninebark (Physocarpus) shrubs have rough, peely bark that is a unique garden element. Coral Bark Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’), a small to medium sized tree, and the Redtwig Dogwood shrub (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’) have coral and red twigs that really stand out, especially against a darker foliaged evergreen shrub or tree.

The beautiful hellebore flowers - charming in any garden!

The beautiful hellebore flowers – charming in any garden!

And of course every garden should have some winter bloomers, they do exist! Camellias come with bloom colors ranging from pure white to dark red, there are even variegated and ruffled ‘peony form’ blossoms, and different varietals bloom at different times from September to March. But that’s not the only option. The Purple Coral Pea (Hardenbergia violacea) is a fast growing but non-aggressive vine that is perfect on a fence or arbor with it’s pendulous clusters of lilac and deep purple blooms. Heaths (Erica carnea or E. darleyensis) are hardy shrubs with masses of small pink, white or rosy purple flowers, and look right at home in a variety of garden styles, particularly with California natives and Mediterranean gardens. Finally, evergreen perennial hellebores (Helleborus argutifolius) love part shade and come in a range of bloom colors from chartreuse to mauve to burgundy.

How could you not want to spend time out here even when it's late and cold!

How could you not want to spend time out here even when it’s late and cold!

Finally, having lighting in your garden will enhance your winter garden, even from the indoors. Using uplights in your lighting scheme can help showcase the structures of the trees, even deciduous ones. Lighting also provides safety during the winter time by highlighting entrances, paths and stairs. It can also be used to showcase garden sculptures, or water features like the photo above, which are focal points all year round. Lighting could also help coax the party outdoors – to the fire pit area or outdoor fireplace for roasting marshmallows, I mean we do live in the San Francisco Bay Area, compared to other parts of the country it’s not that cold!

Enjoy your winter!

Courtyards and Garden Design

The quintessential mission style courtyard was first introduced to California by the Spanish Catholics of the Franciscan order in 1769. California, like the Andulusia region of Spain, has a climate suitable for indoor/outdoor courtyard living. These early courtyards traditionally were walled gardens with a central fountain.

The courtyards served as work places for making bricks, tanning hides and keeping livestock.
The early California Mission architecture was the template for many of California’s civic buildings and residential houses in the 1920’s. The courtyard was part of this traditional architecture and served as the link connecting the home to the garden.

The important physical elements of garden design in a residential courtyard have always been water, walls and sky. Equally important in the garden design are the qualities of intimacy, security and quiet the space provides.

I recently have had the opportunity to restore a neglected courtyard for a 1929 Mission style home in Oakland. The house has the traditional Mission design elements – arches, stucco walls, barrel tile roof and wrought iron gates. Unfortunately, the courtyard’s garden design had none of the fine details that read “Mission courtyard”.

The existing courtyard was filled with struggling plants, uneven sod-lawn, poorly placed flagstone stepping stones and uninviting entry steps. Creating a new garden design for the courtyard required demolishing the existing hardscape and plants.

The Courtyard Before

The Courtyard After

The “make over” of the new but traditional courtyard garden design now incorporates curved vanilla limestone entry steps, vanilla limestone flagstone patio, drystack retaining walls and a traditional fountain.

The new garden designs plant material includes Mediterranean style plants such as Choisya, New Zealand Flax, Kangaroo Paws, Agonis, Agapanthus, Sea Lavender, Carex, Blue Oat Grass and ‘Hidcote’ Lavender. In between the flagstone you will find Blue Star Creeper, Campanula, Sea Thrift, Ground Morning Glory and several varieties of Thyme. To complete the look the large pots have been filled with ‘San Diego Red’ Bougainvillea and white Sweet Alyssum.

Another Before shot of the Courtyard

Another After Shot of the Courtyard

Low voltage lighting enhances the nighttime courtyard experience. Path lights allow you to safely navigate the steps. Up-lights, placed between plants and wall, accent the stucco walls. Down-lights, attached to the eaves, softly illuminate the curved entry steps. Underwater lights, in the fountain, highlight the rustic centerpiece of the garden.

Before shot of the courtyard

After shot of the Courtyard

All of the elements in the remodeled courtyard enhance and support the architecture of the home and the needs of the clients. The courtyard is filled with color, fragrance and the pleasant sound of trickling water. The homeowner enjoys all of these elements both day and night.